Madalena Telo in her Monchique studio Photo: Bruno Filipe Pires/Open Media Group
Madalena Telo in her Monchique studio Photo: Bruno Filipe Pires/Open Media Group

The shape of heritage … handmade by ceramist Madalena Telo

In her studio in Monchique, ceramist Madalena Telo makes clay using a traditional method and creates unique utilitarian pieces that have already found their way around the world

With a degree in Fine Arts, Madalena Telo finds inspiration for her ceramic pieces in the landscapes of the hills and the textures of the rocks on the Algarve coast. Since 2016, she has been working every day on the potter’s wheel in her studio in Monchique, but she was first introduced to this ancient art form many years ago. “My parents are potters, as was my grandfather. From the day I was born, that was the universe I had around me to express myself,” she recalls.

Ceramic spoons with wooden handles.Photo: Tobias Contreras
Ceramic spoons with wooden handles.
Photo: Tobias Contreras

After finishing her studies, she decided to follow in her family’s footsteps and, although she uses many techniques in her work, she follows only one artisanal recipe to make clay.

Madalena Telo makes the most of the spring to collect the clay in the Alferce area and, after preparing it, she combines it with other clay from a quarry in Caldas da Rainha. Although this is a time-consuming process and there are alternatives, such as buying the clay ready to be used, the Algarve ceramist insists on this method. “I really like using Monchique clay because it ties in with the style of my work and being connected to nature. When I’m working, it makes all the difference to know where the raw material came from, when it was harvested and prepared. It’s almost like a ritual that I want to believe is felt in the final result,” she states.

A difficult technique to masterPhoto: Julia Brenner
A difficult technique to master
Photo: Julia Brenner

The craftswoman describes her work as “utilitarian, above all else”, but adds that she tries to incorporate a sculptural element into all her pieces. “I like them to be robust, even if at first glance they seem delicate. I like to make pieces that people feel are handmade through a long and conscious process. But, above all, they are practical pieces that can be used every day and not just on special occasions,” Madalena Telo explains. In fact, this is another characteristic of ceramics that inspires her the most: its durability. “Some pieces have been lost over time, some were even used over a hundred years ago and were very typical of that time. I like to re-create those shapes and modernise them in my own style.”

Plate with Madalena Telo’s signature
Plate with Madalena Telo’s signature

However, as this is a material that lasts several decades, the artisan’s responsibility is even greater. “There are many archaeological finds that contain clay. Even when they break, they don’t disappear. I realise this more and more when I’m producing a piece. Before baking it, I like to stop and make sure that I’m happy with it and that it’s going to be functional because I know it will have to last for years,” she says.

Her catalogue includes cups, cutlery, plates, tiles, jugs and vases of various sizes and shapes. Each piece takes at least three weeks to complete “because they have to be done slowly”, and Madalena Telo is guided by the seasons.

Decorative piece
Decorative piece

“The process is slower during the winter because there is a lot of humidity in the air and the pieces take longer to dry, but this is fantastic because it allows me to make pieces with other characteristics that aren’t possible in the summer, as they dry very quickly,” she explains.

In the Algarve, there are already a number of places where you can find pieces with Madalena Telo’s signature, such as coffee shops, fine-dining restaurants and boutique hotels.

“These are all interesting projects, particularly linked to sustainability”, as is the case with Loki in Portimão, by chef João Marreiros, considered the most sustainable restaurant in Portugal. Also in the western Algarve, in Aljezur, at the Koyo coffee shop, you can taste coffees from around the world in cups made by Madalena Telo. And at Austa, a restaurant in Almancil focused on local production, you will also find some pieces by the Monchique artisan.

Hanging plant plot
Hanging plant plot

Internationally, she has received orders from all over Europe, the United States, Japan and even New Zealand – the latter is a project the ceramist cannot forget. “I created some spoons after the 2016 Monchique wildfires. I noticed that the trees, cistus and bushes looked burnt, but when you removed the black layer, the wood was still beautiful. The way I found to give this wood a second life was to create ceramic spoons with wooden handles. A Portuguese emigrant wrote to me to tell me that she felt a very strong connection to my work and asked me to send the pieces to New Zealand. The truth is, I may live in an isolated place, but I feel connected to the whole world,” says Madalena Telo.

Decorative piece
Decorative piece

To find out more about the work of the Monchique ceramist or to place an order, you can visit her social media pages: Instagram | Facebook

By MARIA SIMIRIS